Authors: Stacy Henrie
New York Boston
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Sioux City, Iowa, November 1918
aria Schmitt balanced on the ladder’s third rung and stretched to pin the last paper cornucopia to the ceiling. Mr. Ross might grumble about her holiday decorations, but the bank patrons loved them. And since more patrons meant more business, he didn’t protest too much.
“Come on, Maria,” Lawrence Poulson grumbled from below, where he steadied the ladder for her. He’d sworn it was his twin brother’s turn to help her this time and hadn’t bothered to hide his irritation when James had proven otherwise. “Are you almost done?”
“It just needs…one…more…”
The push pin snagged a corner of the cornucopia, causing the poor thing to hang crooked. It was likely to fall down at the slightest puff of wind from the bank door opening and closing. Determined the Thanksgiving display must look perfect, Maria removed the pin. Did she dare climb higher?
“Hold it steady, Lawrence. I’ve almost got it.” She ascended another rung.
With one hand splayed against the ceiling, she reached out with the other. Good thing they hadn’t opened for the day. She didn’t need any of the patrons, or Mr. Ross, finding her in such an undignified position. But she wanted things to look just right.
Before she could secure the pin, Mr. Ross called out from behind the teller windows, “Lawrence? Maria? It’s time to unlock the door.”
Maria glanced down at Lawrence. “Go ahead. I only have one more.”
He released the ladder with a relieved huff and moved to unlock the door. A sudden blast of cold air reached all the way to Maria’s high-heeled shoes and stocking-clad calves.
Someone had been waiting for them to open. She needed to finish—now.
“Morning,” a deep voice said from below. “I’m here to…”
Maria tuned out the conversation between the patron and Lawrence and extended her arm its full length to sink the pin into place.
There, I’ve got it…
She let go of the pin, but the movement, however small, threw her off balance. She scrambled to steady herself, but her fingers slipped from the ceiling.
She was going to fall. Her heart jumped into her throat, pounding as hard as a jackhammer, as her body tipped dangerously to the side.
With a strangled cry, Maria tumbled off the ladder, sending the object clattering to the floor. She shut her eyes, steeling herself against the inevitable—and painful—crash that awaited. But instead of striking the polished floor, her body came to rest against a solid, warm chest.
Maria slowly opened her eyes to find herself staring at an ugly yellow tie and the lapel of a wool coat. Her ears buzzed with sound as she tried to ascertain what had happened.
“Maria, are you okay?” Lawrence appeared at her elbow, his expression full of chagrin. He clearly felt bad for leaving the ladder unattended.
James rushed up to them. “What happened?”
Maria tried to speak, but her thoughts felt as chaotic as her pounding heartbeat. What if she’d hit the floor? She could have easily broken an arm, or worse. A horrified shutter ran through her, and she instinctively gripped the sleeve of her benefactor.
“She was hanging decorations and fell off the ladder,” Lawrence volunteered.
The man shifted her within his arms. “Are you all right?” his deep, calm voice intoned near her ear. “Do you think you can stand?”
Could she? Her limbs felt as limp as a ragdoll’s. She lifted her head, hoping to orient her thoughts, but the face peering down at her had the opposite effect. A dizzying tingle raced through her and settled into her stomach as she studied his dark hair, nice chin, and strong jawline. He smelled pleasantly of mints, too. But it was his eyes that held her captive. While the left one was covered by an eye patch, the other conjured up the memory of the pond back at home in the late evening—its deepness hidden beneath long shadows.
He frowned slightly at her unabashed perusal of his face and cleared his throat. “I’m going to set you down now, okay?”
Words at last pushed themselves out of her dry throat. “Oh, right. Of course.” Her face flushed anew.
The stranger lowered her to her feet, keeping a hand on her elbow until she found her balance. Lawrence had righted the ladder and propped it against the wall.
“You sure you’re all right, Maria?” James asked.
“Yes. I’m…fine. ” She smoothed her white batiste blouse and the top of her long, blue skirt with a nearly steady hand. “Thanks to this gentleman…” Her blush deepened as she wondered how long she’d remained in his grip, oblivious to all else but his arresting gaze and comforting arms.
“And look.” She pointed to the ceiling. “I hung all the cornucopias.” Her light laugh met awkward silence. Thankfully the bank door opened again and several more patrons bustled inside. Lawrence and James snapped to attention and hurried through the swinging, waist-high gate that separated the customers from the inner workings of the bank.
Maria inhaled a steadying breath, grateful her heart rate had mostly returned to normal. Turning to her rescuer, she held out her hand. “Thank you for your help and for your timely entrance.”
He shook her hand, his expression guarded. “You’re welcome. Though you might want to move the ladder instead of trying to overreach it next time. Or at the very least, get someone to hold it for you. That sort of fall can be nasty.”
A flicker of annoyance flared inside her as she went to collect the ladder. “I did have help…” she muttered beneath her breath. “Until he went to let
in.” She gripped the ladder and twisted it carefully onto its side.
“Would you like me to carry that for you?” His tone had tempered to sound almost friendly. Perhaps this was his olive branch after offering his unsolicited, and rather pointless, advice.
“No,” she answered abruptly. She was perfectly capable of handling a ladder, whether using one or carrying one. “It’s not too heavy, really,” she amended. The man had saved her from serious injury, after all. “I’m Maria Schmitt, by the way.” She flashed a genuine smile as she hoisted the ladder. “Can I help you with something, after I stow this, Mr.…”
“Emerson. Dale Emerson.” He reached out as if to shake her hand again, but realizing she still held the ladder, he dropped his hand to his side. “Are you Mr. Ross’s secretary?” Without waiting for her reply, he added, “Will you tell him Dale is here to see him?”
The insinuation about her position at the bank stoked her earlier irritation from a spark to a full-blown flame. In her mind’s eye, Maria imagined his olive branch disintegrating into a pile of charred wood.
“I am not Mr. Ross’s secretary, Mr. Emerson. I’m one of his bank clerks.”
Surprise rippled across Dale’s face. “A
bank clerk?” He shook his head in disbelief as he took a seat in one of the chairs near the lobby’s large window. “Things sure have changed around here since the war.”
He might not have meant to say the words aloud, but he had and Maria heard them perfectly. She straightened to her full height, grateful for the added inches from her shoes and that she could now look down on him instead of tipping her chin upward to see his face.
“I couldn’t agree more. What a relief it’s been to have so many boorish men absent this last year.” Guilt whooshed in the moment the words fled her mouth. She didn’t really mean that. But he’d been rude and insulting and…Oh why did she have to go and lose her composure—for the second time—in front of this man? Had anyone else overheard her unprofessional remark?
Cheeks aflame, she marched through the swinging gate. The ladder cracked against the nearby wall, but Maria didn’t stop. She barreled ahead until she reached the storage room at the back of the bank. Inside, she jerked down on the lightbulb’s string to illuminate the tight space.
“What an arrogant…odious…man!” she grumbled as she wrestled the ladder into place.
She’d proven she was qualified for this job, time and time again over the last five months. Mr. Ross often heralded her ability to help more customers in a day than Lawrence and James combined. She’d earned her rightful place here, so why should she care what one good-looking stranger had to say about it?
She wouldn’t; she didn’t.
Releasing a slow, cleansing breath, she pulled on the light cord again and left the ladder and the man’s ill opinion behind.
“James?” she called out as she entered the room partitioned off the lobby for the tellers, the vault, and Mr. Ross’s back office. No more customers stood waiting in front of the teller windows. “Would you be a dear and tell Mr. Ross that a Dale Emerson is here to see him?” She couldn’t help smiling at what Dale would think when he was ushered into the front office by James and not her. A secretary, indeed.
“All right.” The young man stepped toward Mr. Ross’s closed door. “But only if you’ll settle something for us, Maria.”
“Girl troubles again?” she teased.
The two clerks had become as dear—and trying—to her as her own siblings, an older sister and brother back home in the small town of Hilden, Iowa, both married with families of their own. While she had only a year on the boys, having just turned nineteen, Maria felt much older than them. Perhaps that’s what came from seeing firsthand the effects of the war on her life and those of her German-American people. Thank goodness the conflict overseas had finally ended the week before.
Or perhaps she felt older because she was on her own in the city, working a job few women had held before the war. Either way, she relished her life at the bank where, for once, she was taken seriously and treated as an adult. Here she wasn’t the “baby of the family”; she was respected, capable, the best at something.
Lawrence scowled at James. “Yes, answer us this, Maria. Do girls prefer the intellectual young man…” He gestured to his brother, who promptly pushed his glasses up his nose. “Or the strong, athletic one?” Lawrence made a show of stretching his arms to accentuate his growing muscles. Maria swallowed a laugh, especially when she remembered the solidness of Dale’s chest.
Still, the man is annoying, with his antiquated opinions and holier-than-thou advice.
She hoped he wouldn’t become a regular at the bank. “I suppose it depends on the girl. Do you, boys, have someone in mind?”
His hand on the doorknob, James cut a look toward his brother. Both their faces had turned a light shade of red, an awful contrast to their auburn hair. “Well…we sort of…”
“Let me guess.” She pretended to think hard, though she knew which blue-eyed young lady had captured the boys’ fancy. And increased their sibling rivalry over who got to assist her family with their banking needs. “Would it be Miss Penny Sharp?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Lawrence countered. “But if it is, who do you think she prefers?”
Maria hesitated, unable to share the answer forming on her tongue. Penny Sharp, for all her friendliness and pretty face, didn’t seem interested in either twin. But Maria didn’t have the heart to tell them.
She didn’t want to injure the boys with the truth the way she’d been wounded, but she wouldn’t give them false hope either. False hope was something she’d clung to for years, only to have it die when the man she’d loved chose to give his heart to someone else.
While Maria could admit she was happy for Friedrick and his wife, she hadn’t been able to remain at home. Seeing the two of them around town or at church had been a tangible, and painful, reminder of what she didn’t have. Determined to leave, she’d convinced her parents to let her move a few hours away to the city and begin carving a new life for herself. It hadn’t taken long before the freedom she enjoyed being on her own and her important job at the bank had turned her previous hurt over Friedrick to a mere pinprick. She was too busy to think much about home anyway.
“Well?” Lawrence pressed.
“I think you two ought to forget all about that Penny Sharp,” Maria said with a toss of her dark curls. She’d cut her hair short the day after she arrived in Sioux City. “I believe I saw Maribelle Hunsaker making eyes at you the other day, Lawrence. And that shy but sweet Priscilla Whitley wouldn’t let me help her and her mother when they came in yesterday, James. She purposely steered Mrs. Whitley into your line.”
James and Lawrence exchanged a grin before James rapped on Mr. Ross’s door and stepped inside. Maria moved to her stool behind her teller window. A glance through the decorative iron bars showed her that Dale was now pacing beside the chairs. He extracted what appeared to be a roll of Pep-O-Mint Life Savers from his pocket—which accounted for the mint smell earlier—and popped one in his mouth.
“Lawrence, have you seen that man before?”
He peered out his own window. “Not before he caught you. I would’ve remembered the eye patch.”
“What do you think happened to his eye?”
Lawrence shrugged. “War wound, I guess.”
“He isn’t overly friendly.”
“’Cause he hasn’t succumbed to your charms yet?” He grinned at Maria.
She glared back, which only made him laugh. “Mind your manners, Lawrence Poulson.”
“What’s Lawrence done now?” James asked as he rejoined them.
“Nothing.” His twin held up his hands in mock surrender. “Maria’s only mad ’cause her feminine charms don’t seem to work on the fellow out there who caught her.”
“That is not true,” she hissed, praying Dale hadn’t overheard Lawrence. “Shall we do another challenge today,
?” He scowled at her use of the pet name he despised. “See which of us helps the most patrons?”
“You know we’ll lose,” James said, pushing his glasses higher on his nose again.
“Of course I do.” Maria gave them both a smug smile. “But I’m willing to let you have a real go at it this time.”
Lawrence shook his head. “I’m only joking, Maria. You’re as good as James and I…” She cocked an eyebrow at him and he chuckled. “All right, better than James and I, and everybody knows it. Especially Ross.”
“What do I know?” The bank owner appeared in the doorway to his office.
Lawrence straightened to attention. “Uh…nothing, sir.”
Maria pressed her lips over a giggle. James looked as if he was trying not to laugh, too. The old man gazed sternly at them as he pushed his way out the door, through the gate, and into the lobby, muttering something under his breath.